By: Meghan O’Reilly
Sports have the capability of capturing a nation, stealing your heart and changing your life forever. As kids many of us are brought up with some type of sport in our lives because of the values they teach, the fun that is had and the relationships that are formed. Sometimes a sport falls by the wayside but others stick with you forever. The memories, the coaches, the teammates, you’ll never forget them. The bonds are formed around the love of the game, that commonality of it, the drive to be successful. It’s a unique relationship built on love for each other and a love for the game.
Gerard (Gerry) O’Reilly stepped off a 6 hour plane ride in at JFK International Airport in July of 1983. It was his first time in a new country and he was all alone. He had seen pictures, heard stories, was promised a full scholarship…so he picked up his life and went to America about 3,176 miles across the ocean by himself.
Gerry started running when he was 10 at the track club in Dunboyne, Co. Meathe Ireland. “They used to clear out a cattle field and have us run laps,” he said. That was the first time he took note of the sport at all. Prior to running he had played sports like Gaelic football and Hurling but when he began running they started to fall by the wayside. It was shortly after this in 1976, when he was watching the Olympic coverage, that he centered his focus even more. There was a runner from his area, Eamonn Coghlan, who was all over the media as the Olympics approached. The Villanova star was a favorite for the gold in the 1500. This was the first time the seed was planted for Gerry that he had the potential to have his schooling paid for and to run at a high level. A year later, he began running for the Metro Harriers, which was a running club in Ireland and his coach, Gerry Farnan, was the coach of Coghlan prior to him going to Villanova. After just one year at the age of 16, Gerry won his first national championship for Ireland, and then again the following year.
“ The Irish National Championship is the one event where if you run well you’ll get plenty of scholarship offers from US colleges. I trained so hard for that race, months of training on lonely country roads visualizing what winning that race would mean for my career. When I crossed the line in first place I knew all the hard work had paid off and that I’d most likely achieved my dream of going to school in America would come true. I was only 18 but that was one of the greatest feelings of my life.”
After this second win, he had six scholarship offers waiting for him. The only catch was he would never have the opportunity to visit prior to committing and starting school there. It was a leap of faith, but for Gerry who would have most likely not gotten a college education otherwise, it was a choice that would change his life forever. For him the choice was pretty easy, Villanova had been just a dream but now it had become a reality.
Similarly, Melody Sye was embarking on a journey to Germany proudly wearing red, white and blue with a pair of sneakers in hand. She had just graduated high school and she would be representing team USA on the track abroad. She had never left the country and had rarely strayed far from her small town of Ocean City, NJ. It would be an opportunity of a lifetime that would give her experience racing abroad at an incredibly competitive level. Melody had taken to track in high school in a peculiar way. “I originally went out for track because I liked my big brothers track jacket!” It also helped that Melody was always described as being the fastest one in her gym class. She took to the sport quickly and even walked away with a win in her first race ever. The shy girl who never spoke in class found her confidence on the track and from there it thrived and flourished like her times. It was one of the only places she felt confident and comfortable and luckily she also continues to shatter records right and left. She had begun to grab the attention of coaches across the nation, her name consistently at the top of the race results. Never before did she think a collegiate running career was in the realm of possibility. It wasn’t until one day she walked into her English teachers classroom (who also doubled as the track coach at the high school) and he held up a huge envelope with a Razorback on the front and said, “Sye, this is big time!” that she realized she might actually be on to something. She had been recruited to many top running schools at the time but hadn’t quite found her fit, that was until she visited the University of Arkansas. “I fell in love with Arkansas, I just knew it, it was simple,” she said. It only took one visit for Melody to make the decision to move 1,310 miles from home, and that decision would turn out to be one of the best decisions of her life.
Gerry and Melody both thrived throughout their collegiate running careers. Gerry continued his running career at Villanova and had incredible success. He was a 5 time All-American runner, a two time 2nd place finisher at NCAA and the 4th fastest miler in school history with a time of 3:54. He chased every opportunity the school and his coaches gave him. In his off time he began to race professionally and he started training for the Olympics. Melody set numerous records and helped set the tone for the continued success of the program for years to come. She was a 5 time All-American in Track and Cross Country. She made it to the Olympic trials in 1992 and represented the US on multiple international teams over the years.
It wasn’t until the summer of 1986 that these two would cross paths. “I went to visit my roommate, Michelle, in Ireland,” said Melody. “There was a big race in Dublin that we went to watch and there was a social that night. I knew a lot of other Arkansas guys that were there for the race and went over to say hi to a group of them. That’s when I met him,” she said. The “him” happened to be Gerry and they shortly after began talking. Before the night was over, she found him and told him to meet them after the party at an after hours club. “I told her I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it, but I knew I was going to,” he said. “An hour later, he showed up and at the end of the night he tried to give me HIS phone number…No way!” Melody said. And from there the rest was history!
They continued to date and pursue their own running careers. Melody still had 2 years left in school and Gerry had just begun racing professionally all over the world. He would try to plan his invitationals around the meets she was going to so he could see her. As she continued setting records at Arkansas and for the conference, Gerry continued to chase his dream of being in the Olympics.
In 1988, those dreams came true and he was able to represent Ireland in the games. “It was really just incredible. The experience is unlike anything I could have ever imagined” he said. Melody watched his performance in the 1500 from Fayetteville, Arkansas. “Truthfully, all I saw was his head go by on the screen,” she said. “Obviously the best part of the Olympics,” he joked back. Gerry did not make it to the final that year but did run one of his fastest times for the 1500.
Running was always something they both had such a passion for as well as what brought and kept them together. The sport itself instilled qualities in them that they both say they are forever indebted for. Melody stated, “As running took off it was the one thing I did that I never doubted myself and it built over the years. Molded me into the person I am today. I want to give back to the sport that gave me so much. I became so much more than just the kid who started running because she liked her brothers track jacket,.” For Gerry the reason was similar, “running opened a ton of doors for me. Not everyone goes to college in Ireland, 20% maybe at the time went to college from my high school class. For me, if I hadn’t discovered running I don’t know where I would be. It gave me an opportunity to go to college, my mam and dad never went to college and never expected me to go. This sport gave me that opportunity. It gave me great confidence to go out there and tackle every opportunity and to achieve my goals. It is a part of who we both are. We don’t run as much now because of age, but the love for it is still there as much as it has always been. It has molded how we live our lives every single day. It has been a part of my every day life for the past 40 years.”
Today, Melody is the head Cross Country, Indoor and Outdoor track coach at St. Joseph’s University. Her dream job because everyday she gets to give back to athletes and help them fall more and more in love with the sport. Gerry is an equity trader at Vanguard and enjoys watching his kids participate in sports as well as stay involved with the Villanova running program. They have worked to inspire other runners through their lives to achieve greatness both on the track and in life. I’m lucky enough to call these two people my parents. They have always pushed me to be my best, to set goals, never stop until I reach them and to have confidence in everything I do. They have instilled in me a passion for sports which has carried me so far already in life. I am forever grateful for the sport that molded them into who they are today and that brought them together.